A Joe Hannibal Story

PULP of the WEEK 

"At first," Travis Terrell was saying, "it was just annoying and frustrating. For a little while, it was almost funny in a dark, bitter kind of way. You know—'I wonder what's gonna go wrong today' kind of thing. That's when it was minor stuff like broken guitar strings and missing sheet music and so forth."

His mouth pulled into a tight line and there was no humor in his expression as he continued. "But then it started turning into more troublesome, more expensive stuff. Slashed tires on the bus, slit radiator hose on the equipment van, smashed headlights every time we'd go out after a gig and get ready to hit the road again. Two different amplifiers catching fire due to foreign debris stuffed in around the wiring so it was bound to cause overheating … And then, night before last, Georgie Mantz got mugged and roughed up pretty bad when he stepped outside for a smoke during one of our stage breaks and made the bad decision to investigate some noises he thought he heard out behind our vehicles. If there was any doubt before, that made it crystal clear. Somebody was hell bent on harassing and sabotaging our band and getting more and more extreme as far as the lengths they were willing to go."

"How long, total, has this harassment been going on?" I said.

"Five weeks, give or take. Hard to say, exactly, when those minor little annoyances first started. We didn't pay that much attention at first."

"You go to the police when it began to get more serious?"

Terrell shook his head. "No."

"Why not?"

"The way we travel from town to town to do our shows usually has us in different jurisdictions practically every day. Why are the cops in Cowflop, Kansas going to give a rip if we get our tires slashed one night there when the next morning we're headed five hundred miles away to Podunk, Oklahoma?" He gave a fatalistic shrug. "Didn't seem worth the effort of filling out the paperwork. On top of that, a lot of cops got about as much compassion for a gypsy Country-Western bar band as they'd have for some drive-thru biker gang … Let's face it, there've been too many bands over the years who've done plenty of rowdy shit to earn a that kind of attitude. Plus, anywhere around this neck of the woods, the name 'Terrell' isn't likely to draw a lot of sympathy, no matter what."

"So what is it you expect Joe to do?" Abby wanted to know.

The three of us were seated at the kitchen table in Abby's apartment above the general store she owns and operates at No Name Bay on the north shore of Lake McConaughy, west central Nebraska. Terrell and I each had a tall glass of sun tea poured over shaved ice resting in front of us. For Abby, it was her usual can of Diet Pepsi. It was eleven o'clock on a Wednesday morning in mid August. Outside, the temperature was already pushing a hundred and not even the light breeze blowing in off the lake carried a hint of coolness.

Terrell was Abby's ex husband, nine years divorced. In the interim, starting a couple years back, after I relocated to Lake Mac from Illinois, Abby and I have developed what is generally referred to as a relationship. Me, my name is Joe Hannibal; I have a PI license and run a private security patrol serving homes and businesses all around Lake Mac.

In response to Abby's question, Terrell said, "I'm not sure. Actually, I was hoping Hannibal would have some ideas." His eyes flicked to me. "You do have experience in that sort of thing, right? Surveillance, security—whatever would be the appropriate course of action. Keeping a trained eye on things, watching out for the kinds of trouble I've described. Hopefully that might put you in position to at some point spot the troublemaker and stop him before he can continue whatever the hell it is he's up to."

I had first encountered the Terrell name—in the form of Travis's father Cameron, to be specific—during the case that initially brought me to Nebraska and introduced me to Abby. The upshot of that whole matter, after some murders and betrayals and the thwarting of an insane paramilitary plot to stage a missile strike on U.S. soil, was that Cameron went away to prison for the rest of his days, with Homeland Security still racking up charges against him. His money, land, and business holdings were seized, eliminating all hope for any inheritance by his heirs. My role in all of that naturally did not enamor me to Travis. And although he played no part in his father's radical criminal activities, the things I subsequently learned about his treatment of Abby both during and after their marriage hardly made me a big fan of his, either.

But there also was Dusty, the now-thirteen-year-old son who came out of their marriage. Terrell's visitation rights (exercised sporadically due to the traveling schedule of his aptly-named band, Travis and the Travelers) necessitated a degree of tolerance on those occasions when he showed up. And, truth to tell, his actions and attitude had apparently matured in recent years to the point where an infrequent bit of civility on my part wasn't all that hard to manage.

But now here he was throwing in a whole new wrinkle.

"What you suggest are some standard steps that could be taken," I allowed. "Unfortunately, I don't do that kind of work any more. Plus, to do it right, you'd really need to set it up with a team of operatives. I for sure don't have anything like that at my disposal."

"But even one guy—the right guy, who knew what to look for," Terrell insisted, "would have a better chance of spotting something than me and my boys. Especially while we're up on the stage, when a lot of this crap is being pulled."

"I suppose that's true enough."

His eyes swept back and forth between Abby and me. "Look, I'm not one to beg. But we're kind of desperate here. And neither am I pitching some kind of charity case, Hannibal—we'll pay you for your time. The band is doing pretty good these days, actually starting to see some decent paydays. In fact, that's another reason this harassment business is cranking up the pressure on us … You see, after we finish a series of gigs all concentrated in this general area over the next week and half, we're headed down to Nashville to cut an album with a fairly prestigious record label called Exclamation Point. They're not one of the biggest, but they're a real up-and-comer that's been steadily signing new talent with strong potential. If we can hitch our star to theirs it would be a heck of a break. So the last thing we need is for this crackpot who's harassing us to knock us off our game or pull some kind of destructive stunt that would queer the recording session."

I exchanged looks with Abby. I saw what appeared to be a trace of concern for Terrell's plight showing on her face. He must have noticed it, too.

"Tomorrow night, Thursday," Terrell went on, "we're playing at the county fair down in Imperial. We're the opening act for Sammy Stonewell."

"I've heard of him," Abby said. "He's had a couple of pretty big hits."

"Uh-huh. He just signed with Exclamation, too. So, except for this harassment crap, we're riding some real good momentum. On Friday and Saturday nights, we'll be playing back-to-back gigs at Rodeo Pete's over in North Platte. And after that it's another two nights, next Friday and Saturday, at the Panhandle Roadhouse in Sydney. In between, we'll have a great chance to fine-tune our material for the album. Our title track is a real killer of a song written by Roy Clift … You remember Roy, right Abby?"

"Silent Roy. Sure. But I didn't know he wrote songs."

Terrell grinned wryly. "None of the rest of us did either. A song-writing drummer, who would have thought, eh? But, man, did he ever come up with a beauty. It's called The Hard Side of Heartbreak. I swear, if we can get Exclamation behind it, it will be a guaranteed bullet on the charts."

"You've never given up on your dream of making it big with your music, Travis," Abby said. "It sounds like this time you're really on the brink."

"God, I hope so. I can't wait for Nashville and the chance to get in that recording studio so we can show 'em what we got."

"In the meantime, while you're in the area for those play dates you mentioned, where will you be staying?" Abby asked.

Terrell smiled. "There's another sweet break. George Mantz's folks live in North Platte. Got a real nice place there. Great big old thing. And the timing is such that they're out of town all this month on a cruise up the west coast to Alaska. So they're letting us stay at their place for as long as we need."

"That does sound like a sweet deal."

"It gets even better. The place has a huge finished basement, air conditioned, high ceiling, with all the room we could ask for to set up our equipment—We can jam and practice our material all we want, any time day or night."

"Uhmm. That sounds real nice for you and your music."

Terrell's mouth tightened again. "Okay. I get it. You're wondering—since I'm going to have this extended stay in the area—am I going to make any time for Dusty. Right?"

"The thought crossed my mind."

"Jeez, Abby, give me a little credit, can't you? Excuse me if I'm pretty excited about an album opportunity and a little distracted by this other crap that's going on. But naturally I fully intend to spend time with Dusty while I have the chance. As soon as he gets back tomorrow from his camping trip, I figured on taking him down to the fair with me—if that's all right with you, naturally. We'll hit the rides and games in the afternoon and then he can hang back stage for our concert. I think he'd get a kick out of that, don't you?"

"Yes, I'm sure he would," Abby agreed. "But there's the other thing that crossed my mind—with this harassment business that's giving you so much grief, will he be at any risk being around you and the band?"

I realized then that the look of concern I'd seen earlier on Abby's face hadn't necessarily been for her ex husband.

Terrell blinked. "Damn. I hadn't thought about that." He scowled, considering. "But no, I don't think there'd be any danger for the boy. It's not like he'll be alone or unattended at any point. Even while I'm out on stage, I'll make sure he's watching from where I can keep an eye on him. And there'll be security and stage hands around to look out for him, too. Besides, even though the trouble we've suffered has caused plenty of damage to equipment and our vehicles, there's never really been a threat to any person."

"What about George Mantz getting beat up?"

Terrell's scowl deepened. "Okay. Maybe that's an exception. But George went nosing out behind the vehicles when he thought he heard something, remember? Whoever he ran into back there might have been just vandals or would-be burglars—not necessarily someone connected to the other trouble."

"Were there any signs of that?" I asked. "An attempt to damage or break into your vehicles?"

"No." Terrell shook his head. "We figured George broke it up and then whoever it was took off after they'd beaten him."

"That's still scary as hell, Travis," Abby said.

"Yeah, I guess it is." Terrell looked anxious. "So what am I supposed to do? I certainly want to take advantage of this chance to spend time with Dusty while I can. And I sure don't want it to be hidden away in the Mantzes basement or some damn where. How much fun would that be for him?"

"More fun than ending up on the radar of some psycho who's targeting you and your band."

"Nuts to that," I said abruptly. "Nobody has to settle for either one. Dusty and his dad should be able to spend quality time together and not let it be ruined by worry over some chicken-shit creep slinking around in the shadows."

They both looked at me.

"What are you saying, Joe?" Abby asked.

I held her eyes for a second, then cut my gaze to Terrell. "I changed my mind," I said. "I'll look into this trouble you're having. Let me see what I can do … Meanwhile, work out whatever details you need to with Abby then go ahead and plan time with your boy."

* * *

Dusty returned home next morning from a day of fishing and an overnight campout with the family of one of his school pals. He arrived a little sun-burned and a lot pooped-out but as soon as he heard his dad was in the area and looking to spend some time with him, he perked right up.

I'd spent the morning arranging for some of my part-time help to cover the six-to-midnight Lake Mac Security rounds I usually handle myself. I plugged in alternates for the next five nights, not knowing how long this business with Terrell and his band was going to take. As far as informing Dusty about my involvement with Travis and the Travelers, we'd decided to be completely up front with the boy. When Abby explained it to him, he'd nodded and replied confidently, "That's cool. With Joe helping out, they'll get to the bottom of things before the jerk who's making trouble is able to cause much more."

Hearing that made me feel pretty good. I'd developed a real fondness for the boy (in concert with my feelings toward his mother) since settling at No Name Bay. It probably sounds petty, but I tended to feel a twinge of jealousy whenever Terrell came around and Dusty reacted so warmly toward him. So his remark served to provide some solace by at least reaffirming his confidence in me.

Last evening, after Terrell had left and it was just the two of us, Abby had assuaged my feelings even more with her own brand of solace. "I know you don't care for Travis very much," she'd said. "And I know the only reason you changed your mind about helping him was for the sake of Dusty and me. You wanted Dusty to have the chance to be with his dad and didn't want me worrying myself sick over it."

"That's about it," I conceded.

"It should go without saying, but I'm very grateful."

I'd flashed a wicked grin. "You don't have to say it … But you could show me."

So she had.

And now it was time to earn her gratitude with more than just words.

The first step was for me to deliver Dusty (after he grabbed a quick shower and packed a bag for the stay with his father) to the Mantz home in North Platte. Terrell and his son then left together from there and drove in the equipment van down to Imperial where they would enjoy some of the fair activities until the others arrived and it was time to start setting up for the show. The rest of the band members—George Mantz, Glenn Baggins, Roy Clift—hung back to undergo some questioning from me for the sake of rooting out as much background information as possible on what might be behind the harassment. I'd already grilled Terrell the previous afternoon at Abby's place.

I gave everybody the same spiel right at the start: "I need each of you to be completely open and honest with me. Don't hold back anything for fear of hurting somebody's feelings or because there might be some angle that's personally embarrassing. The 'private' part of my private investigator's license guarantees discretion and confidentiality. I don't mean to sound accusatory but something triggered this wave of harassment and, because it's aimed at disrupting your band, the first thing that comes to mind is somebody has an unsettled beef with all or one of you about something. If that's the case, then it means at least of one of you ought to recognize what it might be—if you think hard enough and are willing to speak up."

Yet, for all of that, nobody came back with anything. Not Terrell, not any of the others.

Which gave me cause to add: "Otherwise, I can hang around and snoop around in hopes of spotting somebody who looks suspicious. Or maybe I'll get real lucky and catch the perp red-handed, in the act of trying to do further damage … But it would be a hell of a lot easier and quicker if I had some kind of lead to go on, some idea what might be behind it all. When I do get to the bottom of this—and I will—anything that's been withheld is going to come to light anyway."

Same results. Nobody had anything helpful to offer; not as a group, not individually. They all seemed a little anxious about the whole thing and about my probing, but that was natural enough. Otherwise, I came away with nothing.

* * *

After leaving the Mantz house and starting for Imperial, I stopped at the Sonic drive-in on the south side of North Platte for a late lunch. The Sonic chain had begun offering Chicago style hot dogs a year or so back and, while they're not quite up to the standards of a real Chi-dog like those that were one of my dietary staples back in Illinois, they come close enough to help sustain me out here on the frontier. At one of the car-hop stations I ordered a pair of fully loaded red hots, along with fries and a chocolate-cherry Coke, and as soon as they arrived the day grew magically brighter.

Imperial's Chase County Fair was another throwback to my Illinois memories.

Most of the county fairs in western Nebraska, where the counties are large in size but sparse in population and the county seat is often the only town, tend to be very modest affairs compared to the extravaganzas I grew up with back in more densely populated northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin. The common threads—to a widely varying extent—were agriculture and livestock exhibits, homespun arts and crafts, displays of farming/ranching equipment, usually a stock car race or demolition derby, and, of course, a grand stand show featuring some popular musical act (how popular dependant on what a particular venue could afford).

The big differences out Nebraska way are the certain inclusion of a rodeo competition (including "mutton bustin'", wherein the younger kids try to ride and wrangle unruly sheep) but often the total lack of a carnival midway. It was the latter that I found most disconcerting when I first began attending some of the area fairs with Abby and Dusty. Even though the midway—with its obviously rigged games of chance and whirling, looping "thrill rides" that my creaky old bones have long since refused to be dragged aboard —no longer held much attraction for me personally, the absence of one somehow left the whole event feeling empty.

Which brings me back to the Imperial fair. With a countywide population only a fraction of those surrounding it (including my own turf of Keith County), it managed to draw the biggest crowds and book the best talent of them all. And it had a large, boisterous carnival midway.

Go figure, as they say.

I pondered the mystery of this as I strolled across the grounds that afternoon. It was crowding a hundred degrees once more but the heat didn't seem to be doing anything to discourage an already good-sized crowd. Most of the games and rides were running. I spotted Terrell and Dusty once or twice, waiting in lines, but I steered clear of interfering with their fun. Dusty was wearing a big smile and appeared to be excitedly talking his dad's ear off.

I roamed mostly on the periphery of things, pausing frequently in patches of shade to sip from the jumbo cup of lemonade I'd purchased at one of the food booths. The aroma of frying onions and kielbasas and funnel cakes from some of the other food outlets quickly assailed my nostrils and almost made me wish I hadn't already taken lunch. But, I reminded myself, suppertime would be rolling around before I got done here this evening, so there'd still be a chance to explore some of those seductive smells.

Lest it sounds like I didn't have my mind on my work, at all times I was keeping a sharp eye peeled for shady-looking characters who might be scheming some dastardly deed. Although once in a while I also got distracted by lithe, scantily-clad young beauties who strolled by, usually in a gaggle, talking animatedly with wild flurries of hand gestures. Not that their hands were where my gaze tended to linger—until I caught myself acting like a dirty old lech and swung my eyes elsewhere.

Eventually, I made my way to the grand stand and then out to the stage area that was set up in the middle of the same dirt arena where the rodeos and demolition derbys were held. Terrell had said he would leave my name with the security guys on duty and, true to his word, he'd arranged it so I got clearance to wander back as I pleased.

The layout was pretty straightforward. Sections of portable, chest-high iron railing had been erected all around the stage, flaring out on the back side so that it enclosed a large enough area for the performers' vehicles to pull in and park. There were a handful of uniformed cops milling about with a dozen or so event security guys in black tee shirts with Security stenciled on the backs in big white letters. Additionally, on their chests, they all wore dangling clip-on badges. I, too, had been issued such a badge upon being granted clearance. I was sternly instructed that, whenever I was inside the enclosed area, the badge must at all times be worn in such a way as to be prominently displayed.

Dominating the parking area was a huge motor coach emblazoned on each side with the name SAMMY STONEWELL standing out in bold letters over beautifully painted backgrounds of galloping horses and mountain vistas. I calculated that my cabin back at No Name Bay and a couple more just like it would have fit inside this monstrous vehicle with room to spare. Equally dwarfed by comparison, the Travelers' equipment van and tour bus (indicating the other band members had now arrived) looked like Tonka toys, their red-with-white-trim paint jobs marked by simple block lettering that identified the vehicles as property of TRAVIS & THE TRAVELERS. Without knowing anything else, it would have been blatantly clear who was the lead act for tonight's show and who had bottom billing.

I made my way along the inside perimeter of the heavy railing, idly checking the section couplings as I went, making sure they were all fastened securely. The sun was beating down and even the minor exertion of strolling around had me sweating. From time to time I had to reach down and adjust the hideaway 9mm riding in a pocket holster above my right thigh, where it was starting to chafe. Such occasional discomfort is what you have to put up with when you've led the kind of life that makes it advisable for you to go armed each day, current circumstances notwithstanding.

At the back edge of the enclosure, a lone security guard stood at the latch end of the wide swing gate that allowed the entrance and exit of vehicles. As he watched me approach, his expression drifted back and forth between boredom and curiosity. He looked to be a couple decades older than the other security guys milling around back by the stage, well worn by life but not yet worn down, the flesh of his face leathery and deeply seamed from long hours in the sun.

I greeted him and he nodded in response.

"Got you stuck back here away from all the excitement, uh?" I said.

"Suits me okay."

I leaned against the railing. "You going to be on the gate all night?"

"Far as I know. They'll spell me to go get a bite to eat after the show starts, then I reckon they'll send me right back."

"Expect much traffic coming in and out after things get rolling?"

"Nope. Most everybody's already in as far as I can tell. Don't figure any of 'em will be leaving until after the show's over. Unless the lead-off band decides to cut out after they're done. Sometimes they do that. Mostly, though, they stick around and watch the bigger act perform."

"You work this kind of thing very often?"

"Have this summer. Other work dried up."

"You ever covered either of these acts before?"

"Nope. Can't say I have."

I considered a moment and that gave him the opening to slip in a couple questions of his own. "Mind me askin' your interest in this?" He tipped his head toward my badge. "I see you got clearance and all, but where do you fit in exactly?"

I took out one of my business cards and handed it to him.

"Joe Hannibal, licensed private investigator, Lake Mac Security," he read aloud. "Be damned. Never met a real life private eye before."

"Now you have."

"So you're workin' on a case. That it?"

"Let's just say I'm looking into a certain matter. No big deal, really."

He studied me, didn't say anything.

I pointed past the gate, indicating the paved but badly pot-holed strip of access road that fed off the county blacktop and curved around the back side of the fairgrounds sprawl. "That a through road?"

"Nope. Just leads on and off the grounds. There's another guard up at the county road to stop anybody who ain't authorized from coming back."

"That amount to much traffic?"

"Shouldn't be much any more today. Food service trucks already been in and out. And the porta-potty fellas." He grinned. "The two kinda go together—you know, shovel it in one end then haul it out the other."


"Otherwise, you never can tell when a rancher with livestock over in the pen area or one of the dealers with equipment on display might roll in or out."

I gestured toward his walkie-talkie. "That your only means of communication or do you happen to have your own cell phone?"

He lifted his eyebrows. "I look like a cell phone kinda guy?"

"Hey, I fought it as long as I could, too, brother. But sooner or later we're all bound to fall victim."

He twisted his mouth wryly and tapped a couple fingertips against his shirt pocket. "Yeah, I went ahead and saddled myself with one of the damn things. So what are you getting at?"

I dug a pair of twenties from my wallet and handed them to him. "Keep those along with that card I gave you. Card's got my number on it," I said. "In a little while, I'm going to be stuck keeping an eye on things up around the stage area … You happen to spot anything out of the ordinary back here, I'd be grateful if you gave me a call."

His hand closed on the bills, not too eagerly but not too reluctantly either. "What kind of 'out of the ordinary' things do you expect I might see?"

"Not really sure, to be honest with you. But I trust you'll know if and when you spot anything."

"Forty dollars worth of trust … What if I don't see anything at all?"

"Then I'm paying you for a service. I can't be in two places at once so I'm hiring you as extra surveillance."

He shoved the bills into his pocket and made a wry face. "Junior PI. There's another one I can add to my job resume when this security bit takes its turn at dryin' up."

* * *

The shows went without incident.

I say shows plural because, just as the gate guard guessed, Terrell and his band stuck around to listen to the main act after they'd finished their own set. None of which was any added hardship for me since I liked the music of both groups just fine. Their styles were actually quite similar—mostly what I'd call a kind of honkytonk blues with a few rock licks mixed in on some of the more upbeat numbers.

Sammy Stonewell was young and flashy and talented and it was easy to understand why he was attracting a big following. Truth to tell, however, except for his youth and flashier stage presence, he wasn't all that much more talented than Travis and the Travelers. Maybe none at all, when it came right down to it. He'd just caught his break, that was all, and the Travelers hadn't—not yet. But as evidence of what potentially lay just around the corner for them, the title song from their upcoming album—The Hard Side of Heartbreak, the one Terrell had told Abby and me about—was easily the biggest hit of the night. In fact, it got such a big response from the audience that, showing some real class, Sammy Stonewell brought the boys back out as part of his encore and had them play it all over again.

While the acts were on stage, I'd roamed the fringes of the crowd studying faces and body language, looking for anything that looked out of sync or like it didn't belong, any signal that might alert me to a hint of someone on the brink of mayhem. But I spotted nothing. From time to time I made a pass through the back stage area and got the same results. My gaze fell frequently on Dusty, who stood off in the wings smiling and cheering, totally caught up in the music and the crowd excitement. It was good seeing him so happy and carefree, the way a kid is supposed to be.

When the entertaining was done, a round of autograph-signing complete, and the last of the equipment was nearly packed up once more for the road, I quit the stage area and made my way across the carnival grounds toward the parking area where I'd left my Honda Element some hours earlier. On the way, I stopped to purchase a large black coffee in a tall Styrofoam cup and a couple of fat Polish sausage sandwiches piled with grilled onions, sauerkraut, and mustard. I had an all-night stakeout ahead of me once we returned to North Platte, I figured I might as well make it as enjoyable as possible.

My cell phone rang just as I reached the Element.

"This is Operator X, your junior sidekick," said the voice of the gate guard in my ear.

I perked up a little. "Hey. Got something for me?"

"Maybe, maybe not. You'll have to decide."

"You trying to add 'politician' to that job resume?"

"How's that?"

"Never mind. Tell me why you called."

"Couple or so hours ago, just after it had turned full dark, a car came down that access road back here. Rolled by real slow, went down by the farm equipment, then turned around and came back the same way. About twenty minutes later, it showed up again and did the same thing all over. Never saw it no more of it after that."

"Get a look at who was driving?"

"Not very good. Not with it being dark and the carnival lights reflecting off the glass. Saw a profile—a man, I think, wearing a baseball cap pulled low. It's not a lot, I guess, but the whole thing seemed kinda odd. Two slow drive-throughs like that, the guy never getting out of the car or anything, never even coming to a full stop."

"What kind of car was it?"

"Hell, I don't know. I haven't been able to tell 'em apart since they did away with tail fins and grills. Some kind of full-sized model, though. A Chrysler or something like that. Maybe even Caddie. White or real pale blue in color."

"Wouldn't it have had to get entrance authorization from the guard at the back gate?"

"Should have. But I haven't been able to raise him on my walkie-talkie all night."

I swore under my breath.

"I did get the license plate number, though. South Dakota. You've got ways to run a check on that. Right?"

I perked up again. "I know people, yeah. Go ahead."

He rattled off the number. I found something to write with and had him say it again so I could jot it down. "Good going, Operator X. I really appreciate this. You've earned yourself a bonus, only I'm in a bad position to make my way around to you now with the concert traffic still streaming out. But, if you give me an address, I can write it down and send you—"

"Save it, pal," he cut me off. "You paid me plenty for very little and the whole thing added some excitement to an otherwise boring night. Besides, an address for a guy like me is … well, sorta in the wind."

* * *

When the Travelers' bus and equipment van exited the fairgrounds, I was waiting to fall in behind them. Parked on the shoulder of the county blacktop about fifty yards down from where they came out, I didn't pull out for several beats, holding to see if there might be sign of a pale car with South Dakota plates also showing an interest in their departure. After I'd determined there wasn't, I swung onto the pavement and hung my tail.

As we made our way out of Imperial, I drifted back a couple more times, even ran parallel one block over for a ways, but no third party interest was shown for our little caravan. Once we were out in the country, headed for North Platte, we had the road to ourselves.

Travis Terrell called me on my cell. "I suppose it's too much to hope you had luck spotting anything first time out," he said.

"Afraid not." I decided to hold back any mention of the strange-acting vehicle until I was able to do some checking on it.

Terrell sighed. "Well, I guess we chalk tonight up as nothing more than a hell of a good show then. And that ain't necessarily a bad thing."

"No, it's not," I agreed. "And it was a hell of a good show, by the way."

"Thanks. I appreciate you saying that."

"Not to put a damper on things," I added, "but keep in mind the night's not over yet. As we discussed, I'll keep watch over the house through until morning. Then, if we still don't get a bite, I'll pick it up again when you're getting ready for your gig tomorrow night."

There was a nervous little laugh in my ear. "Christ. I can't believe that now I'm hoping for the sneaky bastard to try something."

"Be careful what you wish for."

"Right. I guess that was a dumb thing to say."

"How long," I said, "has it usually been between incidents?"

"Not more than a couple days, here recently. It was spread out a little more than that early on."

"Sounds like you'll get your wish soon enough, then."

* * *

I kept the Mantz house under surveillance until daybreak. The Polish dogs kept me company for a while but my will power couldn't resist their aroma for very long. I washed down the last bite with a final swallow of now-cold coffee and after that it was just me and the silent, empty street lined by darkened houses.

I'd touched base with Abby on the drive up from Imperial last night to update her on where things stood. She told me she had also heard from Dusty who sounded in high spirits and was full of assurances that everything was going to work out just fine.

"From the mouths of babes," I replied.

In the morning, I drove home to No Name Bay to catch up on some sleep. I ducked into Abby's store long enough for a quick hi and a smooch, then beelined for my cabin. Before hitting the sack, I put through a call to my pal William Thunderbringer who operates out of Denver these days as a fugitive recovery agent (bounty hunter in common parlance, but he is prickly as hell about the terminology). The outfit he works for, Heller Enterprises (often referred to as the Mile High Manhunters, but that's another prickly area) is run by a former Secret Service ace and is one of the top organizations of its kind in the country. Included among its resources is a team of computer research geeks who can spit out data on just about anything or anybody you want; and do it so fast it is downright scary.

It was access to the latter that I needed and Thunderbringer had served as my conduit for such in the past. Inasmuch as early morning is never an advisable time to contact him, I had to listen to a standard amount of grumbling and cursing about the "ungodly hour" before we got around to why I'd called.

"A name, address, and anything else your guys can connect to that license plate," I summed up.

"And I suppose you want it yesterday."

"No rush. Later this afternoon will do. I've been up all night, I need to crash for a while."

"Good to know. I hope they come back with something right away, then I can call and interrupt your damn sleep."

* * *

When Terrell brought Dusty home later that afternoon, I was sitting at the picnic table out front of my cabin, waiting, rolling a cup of coffee back and forth between my palms. The mercury was mercifully peaking out below ninety for a change. Additionally, a gusty wind out on the lake was stirring up some whitecaps and sending a nice breeze to shore.

Inside my head, the information I'd gotten back from the Mile High research team was stirring up some things, too.

I watched as Terrell pulled the equipment van up in front of Abby's store and he and Dusty piled out. Abby came out to greet them. She had a smile and a hug for the boy. Dusty, in turn, began jabbering excitedly, the rapid-fire stream of whatever he was relating accompanied by a windmill of hand gestures. When he finally wound down, it was time to say goodbye to his dad. Father and son shared a hug and Terrell got in a quick hair-ruffle before Dusty lugged his overnight bag inside.

Abby and Terrell spoke for another minute or so and then he turned away from her and looked in my direction. I'd phoned him a short time earlier, when he was already on his way here, and told him that I'd learned some things we needed to discuss when he arrived. Rather than climb back into his van and drive the short distance over to my cabin, he left it parked where it was and came walking across the hard-packed surface of the gravel parking lot.

"If you don't mind, we'll just sit out here," I said when he reached me.

"Not at all. That cool breeze feels good for a change."

"I've got fresh-brewed coffee inside. You want a cup?"

"No. I'm good."

He took a seat across from me.

I put aside my own cup and got right to it. "Milt Vernon. I'm pretty sure that's a name you're familiar with, right?"

Terrell looked surprised. "Milt? Certainly I'm familiar with him. But what … " The surprised look disappeared and was replaced by a deep frown, almost an expression of alarm. "Why are you bringing up his name? Good God, you aren't suggesting he's got something to do with this, are you?"

I was the one asking questions so I ignored his. "Have you seen Vernon recently?"

"No, not recently. Not for … a couple, three months. Something like that."

"Not last night down in Imperial?"

"Last night? Hell no. What are you getting at?"

"He drive a late model Chrysler with South Dakota plates?"

"I'm not exactly sure what make of car he's driving these days. I know he tends to favor full-sized boats like Chryslers and Buicks, though. And he lives up in Hot Springs so, yeah, whatever he's driving would have South Dakota plates." Terrell planted his forearm on the tabletop and leaned forward, narrowing the space between us. His expression grew very earnest. "You're going to have to back up and do a little filling-in on what this line of questioning is all about. Are you saying you think Milt has got something to do with this crap that's been happening?"

"Any reason to think he would be?"

"Not in a million years. He goes back all the way to the beginning with Travis and the Travelers. He backed us and believed in us when everybody else had us shrugged off as just another garage band headed nowhere. He became our manager and treated us practically like sons."

"So why did you dump him a year and a half ago when things were starting to pick up momentum for the band?"

Terrell's fist balled on the tabletop. "That's a lie! We never dumped Milt. We parted ways, yeah, but that was totally at his request. Martha, his wife, had been sick for a long time—emphysema, congestive heart failure, a bunch of related stuff. She finally got so bad that Milt felt obligated to stick closer to home and be with her, not on the road with us and not devoting nineteen-hour days, 24/7, to his other business interests. It was time to devote his attention to Martha, he said, for however long she had left. And that's what he did. Sold off most of his other businesses, cut the cord with us."

"Cut the cord completely with the Travelers?"

"We still stayed in touch, if that's what you mean. Talked on the phone regularly. We were there for him when Martha finally lost her battle. Me and the other guys were four of her pall bearers."

"When was that?"

"About ten months ago. I remember it was only a couple weeks before Thanksgiving." He smiled bitterly. "Happy-frickin-holiday, right?"

I reached for my coffee, took a drink.

When I lowered the cup, Terrell said, "Okay. Now are you going to explain why you're asking all these questions about Milt?"

So I related to him about the odd-acting car with South Dakota plates that had been spotted at the fairgrounds last night and how the plates had subsequently been traced to one Milt Vernon, the band's former manager.

By the time I was finished, Terrell's expression was one of confusion, perhaps a touch of disbelief. "I can't understand what Milt would be doing unannounced at one of our shows—and then not even making his presence known. It's crazy."

"Since his wife passed, has he given any indication he might want to get involved with the band again?"

"No. Nothing like that at all."

"Does he know about the album deal and your upcoming trip to Nashville?"

"He was the first one we called once it all started coming together."

"And there's no jealousy or hard feelings about it on his part—you know, feeling left out now that you're on the brink of the big time after all the years he spent with you when you were struggling?"

"Milt's only feeling is pride and happiness for us. He's like twelve or fifteen years older than us and him and Martha had no kids of their own so, like I said, he treated us like his sons."

"How has he taken the loss of his wife? Has he seemed especially sad or depressed, acted bitter or out of character in any way?"

"No. No, nothing like that." Terrell shook his head with conviction. "He still grieves for her, naturally, but after the fight Martha went through for so long, her passing was one of those things where people say 'it was a blessing'. I think that's how Milt mostly coped with it, telling himself it was a blessing for Martha to be out of misery and not fighting for every breath any longer."

"What about money? How is Vernon fixed financially?"

"I'm pretty sure there are no problems on that front. He's always been well off. Selling his businesses interests and the pay-out from Martha's life insurance would only have added to that. And I also know he had good insurance coverage for Martha's medical bills, so that didn't wipe him out."

"Dammit, something's not adding up," I growled. "The trouble your band has been having and then your ex manager being spotted at one of your shows but never letting his presence be known … The two don't exactly fit and yet somehow it feels like they must."

Terrell dragged a palm down over his face. "I hear you, man. Milt being right there last night but never coming around to say hi? That's weird, no doubt about it. But, on the other hand, to possibly think—"

He was interrupted by his cell phone going off. He muttered an "excuse me" and turned partly away to answer it.

I didn't pay any attention to Terrell's end of the conversation as my mind kept grinding on the curiously secretive appearance by Milt Vernon and what it might mean. I remained convinced it somehow fit with the harassment that had been taking place. But how? And why?

Terrell's phone connection ended and he turned back to me. His face had drained of all color and there was a dull, stunned look in his eyes.

"What the hell?" I said.

"Milt's at the house in North Platte … He's got a gun."

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Wayne Dundee grew up and spent the first fifty years of his life around the state line area of northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin. Always an avid reader, he decided at an early age that one day he wanted to be a writer himself. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer influenced the direction his writing would initially take -- hardboiled detective mysteries.

Dundee sold his first short story, featuring his blue collar PI Joe Hannibal, in 1982. Since then there have been, to date, over twenty Hannibal short stories, three novellas, and nine Hannibal novels, including the latest (BLADE OF THE TIGER, 2013) and a short story collection (BODY COUNT - THE JOE HANNIBAL CASEFILES, VOLUME I, 2013), marking Hannibal's 30th year in print. The Hannibal books and stories have been published in several languages and have been nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, and six Shamus Awards from PWA.

In recent years, Dundee has also gained acclaim for his work in the Western genre. His 2010 short story "This Old Star" received the Peacemaker Award from the Western Fictioneers writers' organization. His debut Western novel, DISMAL RIVER, won the 2011 Peacemaker for Best First Western. And his 2012 story "Adeline" won again in the short story category. ​

Visit his website FROM DUNDEE'S DESK.

About the Author

Wayne D. Dundee

The Hard Side of Heartbreak


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